Andre Braugher didn't know it when we talked, but there have been many times when his growth on the small screen felt as though it mirrored my own life.
It started with his breakout role on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, where he lit up the screen as Frank Pembleton, the intuitive, disciplined, scarily competent hotshot detective in a beleaguered Baltimore police precinct. Back in 1993, he was the kind of alpha male we all wanted to be, better than his backward employer deserved and totally in control — until a stroke put his life into a tailspin.
When Braugher left Homicide at the height of his character's popularity, he plunged into a raft of roles that ranged from promising (an Emmy-winning turn as conflicted heist mastermind Nick Atwater in FX's short-lived 2006 miniseries Thief) to not (gruff Gen. Hager in the second Fantastic Four movie, for example).
All those gigs, glamorous and less so, seemed to prepare Braugher for where he is now: in a choice role as put-upon family man Owen Thoreau Jr. on TNT's under-the-radar hit Men of a Certain Age.
Where his past characters were certain, assertive and accomplished, Braugher's Owen is uncertain and frustrated, struggling to prove himself while taking over a car dealership that his brash, bruising father built from the ground up. He's paired with two pals, played by Everybody Loves Raymond star Ray Romano and Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula, offering a look at three guys in three different family situations straddling the same life issues.
Fans may feel a bit frustrated themselves, seeing an actor whose characters once had all the answers flailing for focus and motivation. But it's a transition the 48-year-old welcomes as an antidote to playing people whose success made them one-dimensional and way too predictable.
"There's something attractive about hypercompetent characters, but at a certain point, you just become assured they're going to have a solution," he said. "One of the things I always do here is make sure that I'm struggling for a solution in real time. So you see that struggle right before your eyes."
For the rest of us men of a certain age, that makes all kinds of sense.
Indeed, TNT's series digs into those middle-aged moments rarely explored on television, when men who aren't supersuccessful look around and question what they've achieved, wondering if their lives are as good as they will ever get.
Co-creator Romano plays party store owner Joe Tranelli, who embodies the show's ethic as a neurotic, almost-50-something whose gambling addiction blew apart his marriage. But Braugher's Owen brings his own flavor, flailing as a son constantly overshadowed by his father, even as he fights to take over running the family's car dealership.
And what Braugher loves most about his sometimes-prickly, often-conflicted character is that he has a grown man's problems, from the possibility of rehiring a rival to help dealership sales to handling a dad who can't seem to let go of his position — possibly because his son still doesn't measure up.
"When you're young, you don't have a lot of problems . . . making rent, that's about as hard as it gets," Braugher said, laughing. "But having kids really transforms you, because you're finally responsible for something. The older you get, the more you have to set aside young men's things and actually deal with stuff."
As the show's second season opens, Owen questions his decision to help continually unemployed actor Terry Elliot (Bakula) by giving him a sales job at the dealership. And as Owen negotiates the delicate task of managing one of his closest friends, Romano's Joe considers whether he'll upend his life to pursue his life's dream, competing in the senior PGA tour.
"Nothing goes quite right, like life," Braugher said. "Consequently, you see these characters constantly scrambling to make things right."
Even though Braugher got the Emmy nomination for last year's debut season, it is Romano who continually surprises as Joe, a character balancing an almost crippling habit of neurotically fretting over his life with a disarming charm and tendency toward impulsive risks.
His hangdog image and self-deprecating comedy invite underestimation. But beneath the wisecracks about feeling aimless after Raymond finished its blockbuster run, Romano reveals himself as a surprisingly deft actor challenging himself and his audience to face the angst of men finally realizing that their youth is behind them.
"Ray has written a character who is constantly, in essence, putting his life on the roulette table," Braugher said. "Here is a character who is realistically and humanely in the grip of a gambling obsession, and it has real costs. Oftentimes, in a comedy, this is the point where . . . there's a funny line and (the scene ends). But this is a show that gets into uncomfortable territory and continues to explore it."
It's a journey the actors seem to be making with their characters, finding new triumphs in roles exploring transitions a youth-focused Hollywood often resists showing.
The icing on the cake for Braugher is his character's status as a middle-class, business-owning, happily married black man at a time when modern media offer few similar images.
"TV's definitely been divided and segmented into separate worlds, but life is a little more radical than TV," said Braugher, who in real life has a nearly 20-year marriage and three kids. "(My character's) got a hot wife and I love her . . . I don't have a roving eye . . . stereotypes are not embodied in our casting. And that's quite satisfying, because its not an often-told story."
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.